VATICAN CITY —
The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church broke Europe’s millennium-long stranglehold on the papacy and astonished the Catholic world Wednesday, electing Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope.
The choice, on the second day of deliberations by a papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel, opened a direct connection to South America at a critical time, when secularism and competing faiths are depleting the 1.2 billion-member church’s ranks around the world and dysfunction is eroding its authority in Rome.
“The duty of the conclave was to appoint a bishop of Rome,” said Bergoglio, 76, who took the name Francis, the first pope to do so. “And it seems to me that my brother cardinals went to fetch him at the end of the world. But here I am.”
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Pope Francis, who had been the archbishop of Buenos Aires, is widely believed to have been the runner-up in the 2005 conclave, which yielded his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Last month, Benedict became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign.
The speed of the selection showed that the cardinals quickly coalesced behind a candidate despite reports of increasing divisions among the cardinals making the choice.
Shortly after his election, Francis called Benedict, now pope emeritus, with whom he will meet Thursday. As the third consecutive non-Italian pope, after the Polish John Paul II and the German Benedict, Francis seems to have ended the era of Italian dominance of the papacy.
Francis, who will be officially installed in a Mass on Tuesday, is a pope of firsts. He chose a name never before used in the church’s 2,000-year history, signaling to Vatican analysts that he wants a new beginning for the faith. He is also the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years and the first member of the Jesuit order to lead the church.
In choosing Francis, 76, who had been the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the cardinals sent a powerful message that the future of the church lies in the global south, home to the bulk of the world’s Catholics.
“It’s a genius move,” Marco Politi, a papal biographer and veteran Vatican watcher, said of the selection. “It’s a … non-European, not a man of the Roman government. It’s an opening to the Third World … By taking the name Francis, it means a completely new beginning.”
Applause erupted in the Sistine Chapel for Bergoglio when he crossed the threshold of 77 votes and again when he said “Accetto” — I accept — according to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was viewed by some as a possible contender. Dolan said Bergoglio “immediately said, ‘I choose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi,’” referring to a rich man’s son who took a vow of poverty.
After vesting in the white robes, the new pontiff looked at a white chair brought out for him on a platform and said, “Oh, I’ll stay down here,” Dolan said, adding that Francis eschewed a car and instead took a bus back to the hotel with the cardinals and delivered a toast before dinner: “May God forgive you.”
“It’s highly significant for what Francis means,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. “It means that he is here to serve.”
Lombardi added that after weeks of focus on a Vatican scandal over the leaking of papal letters and all the talk about who exercises power and authority in the church, the selection of the humble Jesuit, who used to take the bus and cook for himself, amounted to a “refusal of power” and “was absolutely radical.”
For many, it was his hemisphere of origin, home to the largest percentage of Catholics in the world, that was potentially the most important “first” for the future of the church. “We know how longed-for this was by the Catholics in Latin America,” Lombardi said. “This is a great response to this anticipation.”
That reaction was obvious in St. Peter’s Square as Francis, after being introduced with an announcement of “habemus papam” (we have a pope), walked onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to address the crowd.
Speaking in Italian as he blessed the faithful, the son of Italian immigrants asked the audience to “pray for me, and we’ll see each other soon.”
“Good night, and have a good rest,” he concluded.
President Obama extended warm wishes to Pope Francis on behalf of the American people, noting his trailblazing status as the first pontiff from the New World: “As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than two thousand years — that in each other we see the face of God.”
Francis inherits a Catholic Church in turmoil, beset by the clerical sex-abuse scandals, internal divisions and dwindling numbers in parts of the world where Christianity had been strong for centuries.
In picking Francis, the 115 cardinals eligible to vote apparently believed he was the most effective messenger to protect and propagate the faith among the 200 million Catholics in Latin America, where Pentecostal and evangelical competitors are rising. His election reinforces the church’s insistence that it is a global institution. The cardinals also clearly decided that they didn’t need a vigorous, young pope who would reign for decades but rather a seasoned, popular and humble pastor who would draw followers to the faith and help rebuild the church.
The cardinals also opted against front-runner Angelo Scola, who was considered an Italian echo of Benedict, and a handful of prelates from North America, including New York and Boston, who for the first time generated real buzz. But it did look across the Atlantic. Now there is question whether the bureaucracy that governs the church, many say badly, will reflect that internationalism or provide an Italian counterweight to it.
True control over the Holy See’s purse strings and power has rested with Europeans, most of whom are Italian. The new pope’s outsider status sends a strong signal, analysts and insiders say, that change has come.
But the Argentine will have his work cut out for him.
The Roman Curia, as the pope’s court is called, is riddled with entrenched interests and is historically resistant to change. Many observers, including some cardinals, believe the intransigence and political infighting of the Curia overwhelmed Benedict and hastened his departure. Francis doesn’t have a reputation as a commanding manager, and his gracious manner is already sowing the seeds of concern.
Outside Rome, the Latin world is far from the only area of concern for the church. Secularism is surging in Europe and North America, Islam is spreading, and persecution is a reality for Christians in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia.